You know when your MP3 files are a mess. You have albums by The Beatles, Beatles, and Betles, four copies of the same song in different bitrates, and your friends are boggled by the files in your collection with names like 593_afeerb.mp3 and grtst_Hits_TRACK1_.mp3. It’s time to clean them up, but like the junk drawer in your kitchen, the still-packed moving boxes in your basement, or the decade’s worth of old clothes in your closet, you really don’t have the time. Fortunately, unlike any of those tasks, technology can lend a hand and practically do your MP3 organization for you. Here’s how you can straighten out a folder with gigs worth of messy MP3 files in only an afternoon.
Fix your ID3 Tags
No matter how you plan to eventually organize your MP3 collection, step one to sorting them out is cleaning up your ID3 tags. These are the fields built into every MP3 file that contain information about the artist, song name, album name, track number, and other critical details.
If you’re used to navigating your personal MP3 collection from a computer by clicking on filenames, you may not be familiar with the tags, or even think you need them, but they’re important for a number of reasons. First, many portable players use them exclusively, meaning the file you’re used to playing, Smashing Pumpkins – Zero.mp3, may appear as a bunch of gobbledygook, or not appear at all, on your MP3 player because its ID3 tags are messy or missing. Software programs like Winamp and iTunes also use ID3 data to build manageable libraries, so if you plan to use their full features, you’ll need to have neat tags. And finally, uniform filenames can be automatically generated based on a file’s tags, so once you’ve clean up your tags, all other organization falls into place easily.
Since you don’t want to individually click through every MP3 file and fill out every painstaking detail about it, you’ll need some software tools to make the going easier. Here are a few of our picks:
Tune up is a sophisticated plug-in that works with iTunes and Windows Media Player. We like it because it’s so damn simple and has an incredibly easy-to-navigate interface – not to mention it’s just a plug-in, rather than an entirely separate program. All you have to do is drag and drop any songs you need sorted out, and it scans each track to figure out their unique acoustic fingerprint. Once that’s done, it compares these fingerprints to a Gracenote’s MusicID database – one of the world’s largest databases of music metadata. This whole drag and drop system works with album art too. The only downside is that you’re limited to 100 songs and 50 album covers per month with the free version. If you need to do more, you’ll have to shell out $19.95 for the Gold version, which gives you unlimited access.
MediaMonkey (Windows only)
This one is actually a full-service media player and a popular iTunes alternative that comes with some powerful tag management tools that iTunes doesn’t have. Once you’ve installed the program, all you need to do is import your music and you can automatically update tags with Freedb and find missing cover art from Amazon. If any MediaMonkey detects any music that has missing, incomplete, or mismatched tags, it’ll automatically flag them and put them into an Edit/Unsynchronized node, which makes it effortless to find all the bad files in your collection. There’s even support for user scripts so that you can speed up the organization process and save yourself from manually fixing the volume levels, metadata, and album art of each track.
- MusicBrainz Picard
Much like both of the aforementioned automatic tag renamers, Picard looks at a profile of the music to figure out what song it’s looking at, which makes it quite powerful. MusicBrainz calls these snapshots AudioFingerprints. By matching the ones that come from your files against a massive online library of known songs that others have submitted, it can snag all the ID3 data for your song, even if the original tag is completely missing and the filename is meaningless. In execution, the system isn’t perfect, but if your library is so out of whack that it’s beyond the help of ordinary renaming software, Picard can save you from the soul-crushing job of fixing tracks manually.
- MP3 Tag Studio
If you’re really in a rut with some totally unique or rare files, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to have to label them by hand. That said, it doesn’t have to be as brutal as filling out each and every single field individually. MP3 Tag Studio will help you do it more efficiently. For instance, you can fill out an entire folder’s Album field with one click, or automatically sweep through files and fix capitalization with rules you set for it. While this game won’t be nearly as fun or easy as clicking on a folder and watching every song get the right info automatically, it’s all you’ve got if you’re dealing with, for instance, relatively rare bootlegs, or albums from a friend’s band.
Rename Your Files
After you’ve used one or all four of the above software programs to get your ID3 tags settled, the rest of the work is a snap. Since your filenames won’t reflect the changes you’ve made to the tags, you’ll probably want to fix them as well. Using any of the above programs, you’ll be able to rename a whole folder of properly tagged MP3s with a single click. Most work by having you enter the format you want, like Artist – Album – Track# –Title.mp3, then simply filling in those fields by referencing the ID3 tags.
Set a Directory Structure
The final step in organizing your MP3 collection will be deciding whether you want to use software programs (like Winamp or iTunes) to browse and search your collection, or access the files directly through a system of folders. Each has its own advantages. Software will save you the trouble of touching the files again at all, and still give you a neatly organized library. All you have to do is point the program to your music folder, let it index the files for easy access, and let it go. However, you’ll be locked into browsing by the designated fields (Artist, Album, etc.) of an ID3 tag. If you want to make a more sophisticated system for organizing your music, like separating live songs from studio songs, albums from singles, old music from new music, or any other picky kind designations, you’ll need to do it manually with folders. This is mostly self-explanatory, since it just involves creating folders and dropping MP3s into them however they make sense to you. Keep in mind that if you choose to take this route, you can still allow music software to build a library of links to your files without rearranging them, and therefore get the best of both worlds.
That’s all there is to it! Hopefully you’re MP3 collection now looks a lot more like an audiophile’s CD rack than a bargain cassette bin at your local retailers, and navigating it will be much quicker. By making sure new music is adequately tagged as it enters your collection, your digital audio collection should look prim and proper for years to come with very little effort.